When generals join the loot

Prashun Bhaumik |

By Inder Malhotra

Like the guy in the famous May West song that “took his time,” the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), Gen Deepak Kapoor, has been slow to carry out Defence Minister AK Antony’s directive to him to order a court-martial against the military secretary at the Army Headquaters, Lt-Gen Avadesh Prakash, also widely believed to be a protégé of the Army Chief. Up to last week Gen Kapoor seemed determined to let his top aide off with mere “administrative action” which could have been no more than a knock on the wrist for his role in the Sukna land scam. Also allegedly involved were two other lieutenant-generals and a major-general. It is noteworthy that Gen Kapoor carried out the Defence Minister’s order literally at the last minute, just 48 hours before the military secretary would have retired. Earlier on Friday, Army sources were reported as having said that the Army Chief was “studying” the Defence Minister’s suggestions, whatever that might mean.

It was when the Ministry of Defence received Gen Kapoor’s recommendation — that only Lt-Gen PK Rath, commander of the 33 Corps, should face a court-martial, while there should be much milder “administrative action” against Lt-Gen Prakash, Lt-Gen Halgali, a former chief of staff, 33 Corps, and Maj-Gen P Sen, administrative head of the corps – that Antony found it necessary to intervene and virtually order that Lt-Gen Prakash should also face a court-martial.

Commenting on this development, some old-timers of the Indian Army said that the ministerial action was path-breaking and the first of its kind in the Army’s long history. Remarkably most, though not all, of them also agreed that the Antony’s directive was both necessary and timely.

The minority view was that the Army should have been left to decide the matter according to its own set of rules of justice under the Army Act. However, merely to state the facts of the case is to demonstrate that the Defence Minister was not only within his rights to intervene but also was profoundly right. Antony may not have displayed great grasp of the problems of Indian defence but there has been never any doubt about his unyielding insistence on probity and transparency. He wants justice not only to be done but also seen to be done. By any reckoning this surely hadn’t happened in the Sukna case for as long as the Army Chief had handled it.

Sukna near Darjeeling is a military station under the Army’s 33 Corps. When it first became known that the corps commander, Lt-Gen Rath — allegedly at the goading of Lt-Gen Prakash and while keeping his superior, Lt-Gen VK Singh, GOC-in-Chief, Eastern Command and now COAS-designate, completely in the dark – had promoted the vested interests of a real estate builder, Gen Singh immediately appointed a Court of Inquiry (CoI). Lt-Gen Prakash and Rath, it transpired had helped the builder, Dileep Agarwal, to secure from the 33 Corps a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for his project to set up an “educational institution” on a 70-acre plot adjacent to military land. The builder had claimed that his vaguely described educational institution would be affiliated to the famed Mayo College at Ajmer. On learning this, the Mayo authorities flatly contradicted Agarwal’s claim.

The Court of Inquiry, appointed by the Eastern Army commander, indicted three lieutenant-generals, including Prakash, Rath, and Halgali and Maj-Gen Sen, for wrong-doing. It also drew attention to Lt-Gen Prakash’s alleged association over a long period with builder Agarwal. On receipt of the Court of Inquiry’s report, the Eastern Army commander recommended strong disciplinary action – which, in effect means court-martial and dismissal – against Lt-Gen. Prakash as also others. Furthermore, he cancelled the NOC issued to Agarwal before it could reach the West Bengal government headquarters at Writers’ Building in Kolkata.

By the time the file reached the Army Chief for decision, the widespread impression within and without the Army circles was two-fold: first that there was tension between the Army Chief and the Eastern Army Commander who would succeed General Kapoor on March 31; and secondly General Prakash was a protégé of the Army Chief and was therefore being “shielded”.

This, if accurate, can explain what followed. Since by that time the contents of the inquiry report and the Eastern Army commander’s recommendations had become known to the media, it went to town and demanded of Gen Kapoor what he proposed to do about the “guilty men.” His rather angry response was that neither he nor the media should reach a “premature” judgement on the matter. Thereafter he dragged his feet about coming to a decision.

He even gave Lt-Gen Prakash 10 days’ leave to avoid the embarrassment of his presence at the Army Day and the Republic Day parades and then gave the beleagured aide show cause notice in such a way that the answer to it would come just a few days before Lt-Gen Prakash’s retirement. But for the Defence Minister’s intervention the Army Chief’s wholly flawed decision would have prevailed.

This said I must rush to add that the Army is a fine institution that has defended the country’s freedom and frontiers splendidly. Compared with other institutions that form the republic’s infrastructure, it is more disciplined and efficient. Its ethos needs to be preserved and promoted and no one, whether a civilian or a military man, has any business unfairly or unnecessarily to sully its image. But how can the ethos and shining reputation of the Army be preserved when the misdeeds of some its own dent its image? The shameful Sukna affair has come in the wake of several other scams, including the one in which the brave defenders of Siachen were given drums full of water instead of petrol. There is also the case of “ketchup colonels” who, to get rapid promotion, faked photographs of militants they were supposed to have killed. The Sukna scam is particularly disgraceful. Land grab is currently the most lucrative pastime of those in power and other crooks.

It is bad enough when corrupt politicians and bureaucrats indulge in it. But when generals join the loot, god help us. By mishandling such a scandal Gen Kapoor has neither covered himself with glory nor enhanced the army’s reputation.